Last spring, in the writing class I teach at USC, my students and I discussed Turnitin.com a website at which many high school students and college undergraduates are now required to vet their work. In the digital age, copying others’ research is as simple as hitting Ctrl-C. To ensure that students resist temptation, Turnitin .com scans papers for stolen passages, easing the burden on professors.
In universities, the issue is clear. If you try to pawn off someone else’s research as your own, you will be disciplined likely expelled if you are a student, or fired if you are a faculty member. USC requires a paragraph from its honor code to this effect to appear in every syllabus. Newspapers too embrace these ethics.
For the record, my students sparkled with originality as writers should. Why bother writing if you don’t think you can express your ideas better than someone else? Turnitin .com came up because I’d had a bad experience. As the author of “Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll,” I’d been asked to review a recent book that covered similar material, Robin Gerber’s “Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World’s Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her.” There, I found quotations from my research, verbatim and without specific attribution.
I showed the passages to my assigning editor. He had sent me a galley proof, not the finished book, and we both thought it likely that endnotes would appear in the final volume. But then the finished book came in, and though “Forever Barbie” was mentioned in the bibliography, there were no endnotes. I felt violated.
Histories do not grow on trees. The first person to cobble out a definitive narrative has to do a ton of work. You interview hundreds of people and hunt down documents, which can be especially elusive if influential people would prefer that they stay hidden. You separate truth from hearsay. Then with endnotes you meticulously source all your quotations and odd.